Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban music
2013, Duke University Press
IN 1939, eight years after losing both an arm and a leg in a shark attack, Emilio Grenet, the Cuban composer and musicologist, published Popular Cuban Music simultaneously in Spanish and English editions, under commission from the Cuban Department for Agriculture. The book was freely disseminated to Cuban libraries and universities with the purpose, in the words of a government official of the time, of fostering the “diffusion of our [Cuban] culture”. The book itself has been criticised, in no small part thanks to its attempt to force aspects of a diverse heritage into particular genres, often identified with racialised headings (“Genres bordering on the African”, for example). Yet, for Alexandra Vazquez in Listening in Detail, Grenet offers one way on conceptualising Cuban musical heritage as that of a “disjunctive, overlapping, and somewhat elusive musical space”.
It is no wonder that Vazquez takes Popular Cuban Music as a departure point for Listening in Detail. Despite the shortcomings of his framework, Grenet introduction to his text offered a profound statement on the place of Cuban music within wider global cultural production. Of Cuban music Grenet wrote, “what is now presented to the jaded European taste, avid for new stimuli … is not something that has been improvised as a tourist attraction, but a spiritual achievement of a people that has struggled during four centuries to find a medium of expression”.
To read Grenet’s words today, after the global cultural sensation of such ensembles as Buena Vista Social Club, is to be reminded of the Caribbean, and wider circum-Atlantic, heritages of race and empire from which such musical forms emerged, and to which they have themselves contributed. For Vazquez, Grenet’s words mark a “powerful cultural manifesto for the contemporary Americas of past and present”, one which adequately captures something of the “lively impression of the historical and contradictory forces that mold music over time”.
Vazquez’s book devotes itself to pursuing Grenet’s insight into the need to avoid packaging Cuban music into a definable summary to be consumed by outside observers eager to categorise and frame what it is to make Cuban music. In opposition to this totalising perspective, in which Cuban music becomes objectified within a certain range of categories that restrain and constrain its true vitality, Vazquez puts forward the method of “listening in detail”, a method designed both to underscore “the impossibility of defining Cuban music” and to “play with and disturb dominant narratives about Cuban music”. “Details”, Vazquez writes, in a nod to feminist writers in particular who have long recognised as much, “have the ability to jolt the most steadfast of arguments”.
How successful is Vazquez’s method? At its best, it produces some truly insightful moments. In particular, her reading of the relationship between the USA and Cuba, and the racialised dynamics through which North American jazz culture and the Latino spirit of Cuban rhythms have historically intersected, transforming each irrevocably, provides a novel position from which to view circum-Atlantic urban spaces such as New Orleans and Havana as “the front porch of the Americas” or, more properly, “the central creative hubs of the New World”. Nor is Vazquez’s narrative confined to the New World. Her excavation of the musical travels of Graciela Perez, for example, reconstructs encounters between Cubans and Afro-Americans in 1930s Paris, where Perez performed as part of the Orquestra Anacaona in 1938. It is Vazquez’s emaphasis on the importance of details that draws out seemingly peripheral contacts and relationships, and draws out stories from them that position them at the centre of global transactions of racialised, imperial identities.
Yet at other times, the overtly reflexive written style, and its attempts to replicate the staccato, jolting moves made by the music about which Vazquez is writing, feels overwrought, and overt instructions to the reader that, for example, “my hearing of her work here should give you immediate pause” in a passage on Graciela Perez can work to obscure the real insights provided by the details on which Vazquez focuses, and draw our attention too far towards Vazquez’s own written style itself. The closing stages of her chapter on Alfredo Rodriguez, in particular, in which Vazquez experiments with lost punctuation and repetitive phrasings in an effort at forcing musicality into her prose, reads as particularly distracting.
Nevertheless, it is the personalised aspects of Vazquez’s narrative that present some of the most poignant moments in the book. Vazquez is herself the child of Cuban émigrés, and in an astonishing final chapter, entitled “Cold War Kids in Concert”, one of the details to which Vazquez attends to is what she terms the “oedipal origins of Listening in Detail and its reparative impulse”. She reproduces a letter from her father, Manuel Vazquez Rodriguez, from 1961, in which he appeals to the US State Department to grant visas to his own parents, Vazquez’s grandparents. The letter opens an opportunity – not “narcissistic”, as Vazquez worries it may be – for her to finally confront in full the relationship between Cuban migrants in the USA, the musical cultures of their homelands, and the wider material impacts of the American boycott of Cuba.
Once more, Vazquez’s focus is on urban space, in this instance Miami, figured as a “broken city” on account of the impact that the embargo has had on the lives and relationships of Cuban migrants there. As Vazquez writes, “Cuban Miami has suffered a long history of conflicts over how the embargo should alter the lives of its most implicated people … those who visit Cuba, even to visit relatives, were considered traitors. Those who visited Miami, even to visit relatives, were viewed as communist invaders.” Such is the backdrop to contemporary visits by groups such as Los Van Van, openly supportive of revolutionary Cuba, whose famous October 1999 performance at Miami Arena Vazquez reconstructs in precise and emotive detail, attending as much to the politicised protests around the performance as to the event itself. In this final, concluding set of narratives, Vazquez illustrates the great strengths of her method. A complex political situation marked by neo-colonialism and racism is both drawn into specific focus, and also related to the wider complex of relationships between diverse “cold war kids” – Korean and Vietnamese migrants to the USA, as much as Cubans.
What Vazquez reconstructs, through her close listening to particular recordings, and even to particular live performances, is an image of the profound damage done by the continued US embargo, but also of the many subtle ways in which music and musicians, on both sides of the embargo, have sought to subvert it, and to use music and performance to open channels of communication not between two particularised national cultures, but between many groups on both sides of the embargo. Rock fans in Cuba rushing to see Audioslave perform at Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Plaza in 2005, and young Cubans in Miami who shouted down opposition from their elders to avidly support “Paz Sin Fronteras”, a musical gathering at which “Cuban musicians long seen as overly cozy with the revolutionary vanguard”, such as Silvio Rodriguez, Los Van Van and Amaury Perez performed in 2009, are brought together and situated in the same analytic frame by a narrative that insists on crossing and re-crossing the borders artificially created by the embargo. Langston Hughes once wrote on a scrap of paper, in an aside that is significant for Vazquez, of “the syncopated tittering and stuttering of Cuban orchestras”. Vazquez’s account, which offers a visionary reconstruction of aspects of Cuban musical culture in its global context, illustrates the way in which fragments – details – can themselves be used to create visions of open, intersectional political futures rooted as much in the aesthetic and performative as the political. In this way, contemporary Cubans on both sides of the embargo continue to engage in Grenet’s struggles to find a medium of expression.